Client relationships are key to Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc.’s success
A large Buddha statue stands as the focus of the yard of J. Scott Mortensen, president of Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc. in Mendham, N.J. “It’s the first thing I see when I wake up and look out at my garden,” he says. “A garden should make people happy, just like that Buddha looks happy.”
Making his clients happy is the keystone of Mortensen’s business strategy. “Plants are our bread and butter, but what we specialize in is maintaining a person’s landscape so that it not only meets their expectations, but supersedes them. We can take care of anything from routine turf maintenance all the way up to pruning of fine ornamentals,” he says. “We also offer custom services, so if we had a client who was interested in a particular area of their property or a particular piece of plant material, we could arrange our services to meet their needs,” Mortensen adds.
Mortensen started Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc. 26 years ago out of the back of his pickup. It has since grown to a full-service, design/build and maintenance company, with services including estate maintenance, landscape bed maintenance, specialty bed services, weekly lawn maintenance, relocation and staging services, holiday and event preparation and winter services.
Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc.’s office also serves as a showroom where visitors can view examples of past and current projects, as well as a decorative water feature, outdoor lighting fixtures, bricks and pavers. The company also showcases a variety of plant reference materials.
About 90 percent of the company’s clients are in the residential sector in Morris and Somerset counties in New Jersey, but the company will work anywhere.
Mortensen is a firm believer that if he plants the right plant material in the right area in the right manner, “then most of the maintenance will be taken care of by Mother Nature. We try to use a light approach to supplemental applications, such as pesticides or fertilizers. We try to concentrate on the cultural requirements of the plant, starting with the turfgrass,” he says.
Mortensen is preparing his business to address new regulations regarding fertilizer, particularly phosphorus, that will be coming into effect in 2011, which focus on runoff concerns. “It’s going to be a big change for our industry, so if people who are relying on these fertilizers don’t make alternative plans, they are going to have big problems,” Mortensen says. “We are firm believers in the integrated pest management program,” he adds. “We found that gives our customers the best return on investment while also minimizing the impact on the environment.”
While existing clients embrace the company’s approach, Mortensen and his staff have to educate new clients about the company’s philosophies. “Sometimes you get a new client where you have to tell them it’s OK if their turfgrass goes dormant during the hot times, or it’s OK to cut their lawn at 3 inches or 3.5 inches rather than 2.5 inches when it’s especially dry,” he says. “This year, we’ve gone as long as three weeks without cutting the lawn just to stay off the grass and plants and minimize the stress that’s already on the plant.”
One of the biggest challenges the company faces is a deer problem. “The deer are not our friends,” he says. “It really limits us in terms of plant material we can use if we don’t have protection from the deer.” Physical barriers have become the only method to detract the deer.
The state has gone through an immense dry spell and went into a drought watch in August, which provides another challenge. “That put added stress on our plant material, particularly the turfgrass, but also a lot of our trees and plants, such as the maples and dogwoods, are starting to show some ill effects that can be attributed to the weather,” Mortensen says.
When Mortensen tackles landscape design, he does so with an eye to the time and money it will require to maintain it over its lifespan. “The key factor is to make the client happy and give them a great return on their dollar,” he says. When selecting plant material, it is important that the plants be resistant to pests, diseases and, if possible, deer. “If it meets those criteria, then we’re going down the right path,” Mortensen says. “Another factor that is important to us is if the plant material is multi-seasonal.”
Most people are not cognizant of the many benefits of plants, Mortensen points out. “People often don’t realize it unless you show them and then they say, ‘Oh, that’s why I like that plant,’ or ‘I can see how this is fitting so nicely,” he says. “Many people talk about flowers and fall color, but they forget about things like bark and the plant’s structure.”
The company’s contracts for estate maintenance are year-round, and others are on a 10-month minimum from March 1 through December 31. “In the dormant months of January and February, our office is always busy because we’re getting things ready for the following season,” Mortensen says. This is also the time when the company repairs and maintains equipment in its shop. “March 1 comes around fast. One of my foremen named it ‘March Madness’ for us because it is madness.”
Mortensen is finding an increase in demand for relocation and staging services, which are designed for homeowners or real estate agents trying to spruce up properties to sell. “They just need something to push them over the top, to differentiate them from the other houses on the block for sale,” he says. “We go in and work with the agent and the homeowner to see what we can do to get the house sold; what we can do for the most reasonable amount of money in the least amount of time.”
Mortensen says his company seeks long-term client relationships. “We like what we do, and we like the customers we have. They become our friends,” he says. “If someone is looking for a one-hit wonder at the lowest price, we’re not the guys to hire. But, if they want a company where a real person answers the phone, and they know the people working on the property on a first-name basis, because we tend to keep the same crew at each client’s house, it becomes a very nice relationship, and we try to cultivate that.”
Mortensen adds, “We’re very strong on customer service. “We consistently check and recheck to make sure we are making customers happy regardless of how long they have been with us.” Each time the company does a project, the customer gets a follow-up phone call. Clients also receive monthly newsletters.
Mortensen credits his employees—the staff fluctuates between 12 and 15—for creating the success his company has attained. “I have tremendous people who make my life so much easier, make me look so much better and allow me to do so much more for my clients,” he says. “They really care for the customers.” Mortensen looks for employees who are team players and have great attitudes. “After that, usually everything falls into place,” he says.
Employees get their continuing education through Rutgers University, trade associations, vendors and government regulatory agencies. Occasionally, Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc. hosts a seminar at its shop on behalf of one of the associations to which it belongs, such as a recent conference on rainwater harvesting for the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.
Mortensen also has praise for the company’s equipment and fleet. “We have some really great utility body trucks that allow us to carry a tremendous amount of tools and resources with us and operate more efficiently,” he says. “One of our favorite pieces is a Kubota backhoe. It never breaks. Our Dingo is a great piece of equipment. Both the Dingo and the Kubota come with their own custom trailer that we set up and designed. We have a tremendous amount of attachments for them, so it allows us to do a better job at a more rapid rate. With them, work becomes a one or two-man operation,” he says.
One of Cedarwood Landscaping, Inc.’s recent design projects won top honors as the best design/build project in the state by the New Jersey Nursery & Landscape Association, as well as from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. “The award was for a residential project we did in Mendham Township, N.J., in Morris County,” says Mortensen. “We tried to create a low-maintenance landscape that was relatively self-sufficient that would accentuate the architecture of the new home, including all of the surrounding living areas with a tremendous amount of plant material that would provide multi-season interest and long cycling periods of flowers.”
Mortensen and his employees enjoy the challenges involved in landscape design and maintenance. “Everyday we’re learning new things,” he says. “We love to learn.”
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.